In my last post I looked at some of the issues associated with being human in the modern world, and why they can limit our ability to function well; in particular limiting our resilience and raising our sense of entitlement.
The irony of modern living is that as we develop a more stable, leisure-focused society which, in turn, allows us the potential to spend more time nurturing our most evolved human features (like compassion, empathy and rational thought), the more we’re tempted to indulge our midbrains (the pleasure and fear centres of the limbic system), resulting in more protohuman behaviours (like greed, pleasure-seeking, violence and short-term satiation). We look to fulfil ourselves with modern accoutrements, and get upset when we realise our lives are devoid of meaning – leading to the next round of hedonism.
Never before have there been so many people, with almost everything they could want, who feel so dissatisfied and empty.
So what can we do?
Here are two concepts that might help: hedonism and eudaemonism. Hedonism is the pursuit of a comfortable life – with the assumption that gratification of desires and the resultant short-term pleasures, are the most important aspects of life. Many of us live within this philosophy, assuming that happiness comes from the fulfilment of short-term desires. For example, most of us are convinced that “stuff” will bring us happiness (see parts 1 & 2 of this blog post), and spend a lot of our time and energy chasing after it (or its analogues, like trips or relationships, or sex, or food). Let me point out that there is nothing inherently wrong with living in this way – except:
1) It’s unlikely that you’ll ever experience any deep fulfilment. In fact, it’s likely that you’ll always be trying to fill a perceived emptiness in your life without much success.
2) This way of living means that most of our interactions with the world are predicated by the limbic system (our inner monkey), which means that for most of us, we spend our lives being clever monkeys rather than fully functioning human beings – read my upcoming post “Spanking the Inner Monkey” for more about why this sucks…
3) Our desire for gratification of monkey desires is quite literally fucking up the planet – read my post about genius authors for some insight into this notion…
Eudaemonism is the pursuit of meaning. Living a eudaemonic life means accepting that the pursuit of pleasure doesn’t lead to happiness or fulfilment. Instead, eudaemonism is living for a “greater purpose” by acting in line with a set of understood values, and behaving in ways that are congruent with those values. This all sounds a bit “new agey” but, put simply, it means recognising that there’s more to life than stuff, that pleasure is fleeting and can’t be relied on for happiness, and that a sense of purpose and meaning comes from (i) understanding what’s really important to you and (ii) acting in a way that allows to you to live in line with your values on a day-by-day basis.
Strategies for living like a human in the modern world without becoming an arsehole: increasing resilience and connection, and reducing undeserved entitlement
I’ll try to make these as simple and doable as possible. It’s hard to live a life of constant diligence, especially one in which we’re forced to compete with others on a daily basis. Worse, we’ll always be at war with our inner monkeys (see my post “Spanking the Inner Monkey”), but there are some really simple things that can help.
1) Understand compassion: Without getting too touchy-feely here, let’s just go with the basics. Compassion is recognising that other human beings are deserving of your tolerance and empathy. Buddhists talk about forgiving the person not the action – this means that people do stupid things all the time, and the actions themselves are often unforgivable. The person, however, is deserving of forgiveness and understanding because all of us screw up (often) and few of us have it together enough to act in a perfect manner all the time…
As I’ll expand on in my post on later, compassion is a human-specific feature. It’s exclusively the domain of the neocortex, the most recently evolved part of our brains, and the part that lets us do amazing things. Compassionate thoughts and actions are often completely at odds with our less evolved limbic system (or monkey brain), which is about immediate gratification or survival (and results in our ability to behave in terrifying ways and then to be able to rationalise it later). Because it’s not compatible with our more primitive brain centres, compassion takes practice and is hard to make instinctive.
There’s a lot more I want to talk about re compassion, so I’m going to make it the topic of its own post: Mindfulness and compassion for dummies. Coming soon…
2) Increase psychological flexibility: So a lot of our issues come from rigid thinking and stereotypical behavioural patterns. Unfortunately, most of these patterns are learnt early on and become pretty much hardwired, meaning that it’s very hard to think or act differently even if you want to. The solution is more like a hack or work-around. Psychological flexibility is, simply, the ability to recognise things for what they are and to then separate yourself from the usual scripted thoughts and behaviours. This is about recognising what’s going on and making changes on the fly (I talked about this in my earlier blog posts here and here).
Put as simply as I can – pay attention to what’s going on and recognise when you’re acting on script. Then do something about it.
3) Learn about your values: What’s a value? Something that’s important and meaningful to you that you can do something about right now. Often confused with goals. For example, a value might be effective in your work, or to be a loving partner – you can behave in line with these values (values congruent behaviour) at any time. Goals tend to refer to something you want to achieve (like “I want to be more successful at work”, or “I want to be a better partner”) – these imply the intervention of someone or something else. Goals can be useful in acting in line with your values. For instance, if one of your values is to develop greater skills in a favourite activity, you can set goals to help achieve this (e.g., I’ll practice x for x minutes x times a day)…
There are many human values – here’s a list (not mine) of some of the commonly held values.
Why act in line with values? Because a value is what’s important and meaningful to you. If you’re able to modify your actions (from small, everyday behaviours like what you eat and how you interact with others, to large actions like what you choose to do for work) to be in line with what’s important to you, then you’re much more likely to feel that you’re doing something worthwhile and meaningful in your life, and less likely to feel you’re struggling with the world. This is eudaemonism in practice.
It’s probably worth a brief side note on values and importance. Understanding what’s really important to you takes some work. Often we assume other people’s values or the programming of an upbringing, societal influence, religion, or media. Prying apart your beliefs from those that you’ve been taught to believe is pretty hard. I try and go with the following: (i) is this really about me? (ii) does this belief get in the way of me improving or learning? (iii) does me acting on this belief have the potential to harm others? If it’s a yes, it’s not mine – and I need to do some soul searching to understand why it’s in there… This link might help…
4) Get some perspective: This is related to points 1-3 above. Life isn’t easy, nor is it supposed to be. There will be discomfort and pain – both are very much part of the human condition, and it’s how we react to discomfort and pain that helps us to stay effective. Your limbic system (inner monkey) will tell you to avoid pain and discomfort at all costs and, potentially, to respond to threat with increasing self absorption (see section on entitlement in my last post). It will also attempt to shut down your neocortex (human bit of your brain) making sure that you act according to your prescribed programming (like getting angry automatically when someone pushes in front of you).
So: recognise that life is about challenge and that pain is inevitable, and then act according to what’s important to you.
5) Learn the difference between being a human and a smart monkey: I’m going to do a whole post on this soon (see “Spanking the Inner Monkey”). Suffice to say, you have an amazingly powerful and complex neo cortex that lets you do incredible things. You also possess a limbic system that’s a left over from earlier evolution (a redundant system). The first one lets you choose how to act, to recognise your values, and to think and behave compassionately. The second encourages you to assume your emotions are valid and to act accordingly (i.e., badly), to satisfy pleasure urges as quickly as possible, and to compete with the people around you who might be a threat. Personally, I prefer the first one…
OK – enough for now… Next time, I’m going to expand on the notion that we’re victims to the evolution of our brains, and look at ways to hack these systems, in my next post “Spanking the Inner Monkey” – stick around 😉